Penang, The Bicycle State

Updated: 13 Dec 2013
Photo by Su Aziz

Writer, journalist and author, Rehman Rashid records his experience of cycling around Penang, its encouraging cycling policies and events while chatting with those responsible for the bicycling lanes, owners of prominent bicycle shops and pleasantly discovers the tolerance of Penang drivers toward cyclists.

Thirty years ago a young man stood on Minden Heights and gazed with foreboding across the strait at the bridge nearing completion in the hazy blue distance. With its four legs and long curving tail, he thought, it looked like a brontosaurus coming to trample Penang underfoot.

Penang was an island. Everything about it - history, economy, society, geography and climate; even mindset, character and self-image - was a consequence of its being an island. Islands are, by definition, surrounded by water. Now here was this monstrous thing snaking out from the mainland to this green and pleasant, well-watered and clean-aired haven for fisherfolk, seafarers, travellers, emigrants, adventurers, merchants and scoundrels through the ages.

With the bridge, worried the young man on Minden knoll 30 years ago, Penang would no longer be an island. Indeed, it would be swallowed whole. The bridge would spew concrete all across the Gelugor and Jelutong foreshore, crushing Penang’s eastern frontage in highways. Vehicles would pour onto the island across that 13.5km tentacle (“the world’s third-longest bridge”, as if that mattered). The coastal fishing communities relocated to low-cost high-rise flats would not be the only ones whose lives would be changed irrevocably. Penang would never be the same again.

Yet, the bridge had been an obvious dream ever since wheels and rails had supplanted keels and sails. The late Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu, in many respects a founding father of modern Penang, had envisioned one since his childhood. Surely, nothing would do more to join Penang and the Peninsula in a seamless socioeconomic continuum. Tun Dr Lim saw his dream come true in 1985, and lived long enough to see that he had been right. On its opening, the bridge intravenously injected Penang with the boosted blood of its future.

There had been a move to name the bridge after Tun Dr. Lim or the prime minister of the day, who had been an enthusiastic enabler of the project. Penangites being famously level-headed, however, there was never any doubt that the bridge would be called, simply, the “Penang Bridge”. Similarly, although the sprawl of highways and flyovers feeding the bridge today indeed bears the name of Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu, it’s popularly known as the Jelutong Expressway.

And it’s turned out to be a fine piece of civil engineering on which to tuck into the drops of a racing bicycle, shift into top gear and power up the pedals till the wind whistles in your helmet straps and the past blurs out and is replaced by the future, up ahead and rapidly approaching.

Penang is a wonderful place to ride a bicycle. Surgeon Dr. Lim Seh Guan, chairman of G Club Penang Cyclists, describes a round-island ride: “You start off among all the heritage buildings of George Town, then you ride out past Jelutong and the industries of the Free-Trade Zone, and then you reach the rural part, and you can see all these transformations...”

Cyclists on the curvaceous Teluk Bahang dam stretch early Sunday morning.

Skirting the farmlands of Balik Pulau and the island’s west coast, this blue-riband ride climbs up and over to Teluk Bahang, passing nutmeg orchards and fruit trees, “and you hear the waves booming on the beach.” Then comes a pimpin’ curb-cruise through the glitter and bling of Batu Ferringhi’s watering holes and Tanjung Bungah’s groves of condominiums, past the monument to land reclamation that is Tanjung Pinang’s Straits Quay and back into George Town - a Complete Biography of Penang in 82km.

Today, this route and most of Penang’s principal thoroughfares feature the regular appearance of a bicycle symbol on the margins of the road, frequently in tandem with a roadsign as yet unseen anywhere else in the country: a blue disc with the white silhouette of a bicycle. This had been Dr Lim Seh Guan’s idea. It had occurred to him in 2008, while he was visiting the French city of Lyon, globally renowned for innovative urban management. “They drew a line on the road for a bicycle lane.”

In Penang that year, there had been two other watershed events: Unesco had bestowed World Heritage Status on George Town, and a new state government had taken office. Calculating that new brooms sweep clean, Dr Lim and his associates decided to take the idea to the new administration early the next year. They received an immediate audience and an expression of support for cycle lanes - if they could show there were enough cyclists to use them. “Will 500 be enough?” Dr Lim asked, off the top of his head.

“If you get 500,” he was told, “we’ll get the chief minister to ride with you.”

The first annual “Campaign For A Lane” ride in 2009 drew 750 riders, led in the front row by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng on a mountain bike. (“I try to ride,” the CM said later. “I enjoy it.”) The turnout doubled to 1,500 the following year, and doubled again in 2011, to 3,000. Last year, 3,500 cyclists rode for the cause, leading the organisers to consider limiting entries to less overwhelming numbers - but by then the writing was on the wall and the signs were on the road. The CIMB Foundation stepped up to fund the signage, and the sheer momentum of the cause has since seen every principal road on the island now marked for cyclists.

These are not designated “cycle lanes” as such - they are not reserved for bicyclists. On Penang’s sorely beleaguered city road system, that would be not only impossible but just plain wrong. What they achieve is no small thing, however. When it comes to “creating awareness” of cyclists as legitimate roadusers, they do so directly, ubiquitously and where it matters most - In Your Face.

As a result, Penang’s motorists are becoming more sensitized to cyclists than anywhere else in the country -whether they like it or not. Some chafe at the “idiots risking their lives on bicycles, I nearly knocked one down today”, as one Facebook posting put it. But most are learning, grudgingly or otherwise, to share the road. As shipping executive Ronnie Tan observes: “Everyone in Penang knows someone who rides a bicycle.”

After the arduous trek up hill, cyclists take a breather and enjoy the view of Teluk Bahang dam.

There may be some 10,000 bicyclists among the island’s 800,000 residents. “It’s a herd mentality,” remarks medical-systems supplier Chia Chee Min. “Everybody is coming to cycling. If you don’t, you’re left behind.”

Which brings a beaming smile to the face of Lim Lai Huat, now 60 and among the doyens of the bike trade in Penang. “Business is hot,” he says. “Young. Old. Ladies. Fashion.” Lim’s Cycles started up in Bayan Lepas in 1976 and now has five retail outlets, the newest being the island’s first bicycle “boutique”, a swish two-floor establishment exclusively for the products of Specialized bicycles of the USA. Speaking amid the clutter of his old Bayan Lepas premises, festooned with kid’s trikes, BMXes, neon-bright fixies and low-end mountain bikes, Lim describes this, his first shop, as “a Proton”. His long-time outlet in Bayan Baru is “a Nissan”. The Specialized boutique - Lim Bicycle Station in Sungai Nibong - “that’s a Bee-Em!”

The rapid expansion of cycling at the high end indicates the financial clout of the lobby. A bicycle is no longer a poor man’s vehicle. People are investing more in their first bikes, says Ng Chin Eak, the 70-year-old proprietor of Chin Aik Cycles on Carnavon Street. (“From a few hundred ringgit ten years ago to a few thousand today. I’m having a good life.”) This makes first-bike buyers more likely to get serious about cycling, which in turn makes it more likely they’ll keep coming back for maintenance and upgrades and someday buy another, better, more expensive bike. (Or four, five or ten, at the wilding fringe of obsession.)

Lim Lai Huat sees no downside to this. “Cycling is good exercise for blood circulation. Sweating detoxifies you. Your health improves. After riding, you feel fresh and happy.” He couldn’t be happier. All five of his bike shops are thriving, all six of his children have followed him into the family business, and “the Penang government is promoting cycling and exercise.”

Remarkably, the state government has not spent taxpayers’ money on the landmark changes taking place in Penang for cyclists and cycling. Indeed, the principals behind the Campaign For A Lane, while seeking the administration’s approval and support, were leery of their involvement. “Politics is about mileage, mileage, mileage,” reckons G Club chairman Dr Lim Seh Guan, “while we are about participation, participation, participation.”

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng ripostes that, whatever politics is or is not about, governance had better be about participation too. “It has to be a combination of the people and the government,” he insists. “We struck the mother lode when we decided to make Penang a ‘Bicycle State’. It created its own momentum.”

Approaching the end of his first five-year term as chief minister, Lim can point to several advances towards the “Cleaner and Greener Penang” that is a billboarded policy platform of his government. The state now boasts the country’s highest recycling rate, at 26 percent. Free plastic bags were banned two years ago, and the proceeds from their sale directed to poverty alleviation. Car-Free Zones have been instituted in the central business district on Sundays, and Lim says he’d like to see the entire Heritage Enclave closed to vehicles.

The Straits Quay starting line of Penang's 'Clean & Green Ride' 2013.

Lim’s government wants cheap or free bus services and the resurrection of George Town’s tramlines (their original rails still visible down the middle of Penang Road), and has leapt on the cycling bandwagon like a cyclocrosser. The state’s own survey last year found 97 percent in favour of cycling paths. Penangites, Malaysians and advocates of urban cycling the world over are now gathering around the spectacular prospect of a dedicated cycling path stretching 12.5km along the island’s eastern foreshore, from George Town to Queensbay.

The Coastal Cycling Route will not be a “cycling path” as such - it will be a long, narrow landscaped park, flanking a paved track for cyclists. (And runners, skateboarders, rollerbladers, perambulators and promenaders.) It will form a people-friendly frontage to the commercial and residential projects seaward of the Jelutong Expressway - whose developers will have to foot the estimated RM30 million cost as a condition of their permits. Five developers of shoreline projects will be responsible for the sections of the CCR fronting their property, while the municipality will maintain the sections running past George Town’s Heritage Zone and the apron of the Penang Bridge.

Confoundingly, the CCR draws mixed reactions from “serious” cyclists. “It won’t be attractive for training rides,” grumbles one. “Too many people.” Too much carping, more like - “too many people” is hardly negative for brand-new recreational space on the island, gained at minimal cost to the taxpayer. (Besides, the Jelutong Expressway is always there for the hardmen.)

The CCR project epitomises the interaction of public, private and civil sectors that Chief Minister Lim knows is necessary for Penang. It springboards off the efforts of Dr. Lim Seh Guan and his colleagues, taking the concept to levels unattainable by civil society alone: the CCR is but the first phase of a projected 200km network of dedicated cycling paths on the island and in Prai on the mainland to be completed over the next five years.

Let not the foregoing gloss over, however, that cyclists will always be challenged by the traffic-hardened arteries of George Town. Notwithstanding the dozen bike-rental shops that have opened there since World Heritage Status in 2008, tourists are not a major focus of these efforts. The Bicycle State is for those who live, work and play here, and for the land, skies and waters of the island they call home. “When the bicycle lanes are complete,” affirms former pro racer Faizal Wahab, now chief mechanic at Lim Bicycle Station, “this will be the best place in Malaysia to cycle.”

And that young man from 30 years ago, with such dire concerns about the bridge being built across the water? He’s a retiree now, bent into an aero tuck on a road bike blasting southbound along the Jelutong Expressway at dawn, with the sun rising over the mainland to his left and gilding the lush green spine of the island to his right. Penang and me, we both made it.

Surgeon and cycling activist, Dr. Lim Seh Guan with the writer (second and third from left) flanked by friends atop Pearl Hill after a 'training ride'.

This is one of the features from the latest Time Out Penang annual guide 2013/14. You can purchase the guide here. For details on cycling routes, bike shops and rentals, see Cycling in Penang.

Tags: Features